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Christopher Lubienski and T. Jameson Brewer University of Illinois March 2014
Summary of Review
The new Fordham report, Pluck & Tenacity , examines the impact of school vouchers on five private schools in Ohio. While the journalist who authored the report is primarily interested in the effect on this small set of schools, we focus here on an underlying assumption asserted in the executive summary of the report: that because of vouchers, “school outcomes will improve.” As presented in this report, this assumption about the beneficial impacts of vouchers is a case-study in how to engage in slanted selection and interpretation of research evidence. As we show in this review, the totality of three endnotes used in the report reflect not just an incomplete picture of the research literature on vouchers, but an extreme case of cherry-picking sources to support a contested policy agenda. Moreover, even with the few sources cited to put voucher outcomes in a favorable light, the report cherry-picks the findings that suit Fordham’s agenda, while ignoring the findings from those very same sources that do not support —and even contradict — the premise. Thus, the report is grounded in a twice-skewed and intellectually dishonest view of the research on vouchers and their academic outcomes. The subsequent journalistic celebration of five schools in Ohio then continues this unsystematic treatment of evidence, amounting to little more than cheerleading for vouchers.
National Education Policy Center
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REVIEW OF PLUCK & TENACITY: HOW FIVE PRIVATE SCHOOLS IN OHIO HAVE ADAPTED TO VOUCHERS
Christopher Lubienski and T. Jameson Brewer University of Illinois
The controversial issue of vouchers has traditionally been contested around the impacts these private school subsidies have on academic outcomes. More specifically, research has focused primarily on the “first -order” effects—the impact on the academic achievement (typically measured by standardized test scores) of public school students who use vouchers to attend private schools. 1 Research has also focused on “second -order” impacts, as vouchers may have spillover effects on other students who are not using vouchers —for example, whether there are competitive effects generated by voucher programs that cause other schools to improve their performance, thereby benefiting non-voucher students. 2 Journalist Ellen Belcher takes on a different question: the effects of vouchers on the private schools that accept them. The release of her report by the Fordham Institute examines five Ohio private schools that accept vouchers and was supported by a concurrent release of profiles of these schools in Education Next .3 The profiles of these schools make up the bulk of Belcher’s report. While the question of the impact of vouchers on voucher-accepting private schools is indeed an interesting and worthy issue, our interest here is in the preliminary assertion made in the executive summary of the report and in the Foreword that vouchers improve school outcomes. 4 In fact, our review focuses primarily on the first sentences of the executive summary: One key theory behind vouchers is that by opening private-school opportunities to disadvantaged children, student outcomes will improve. Research and program evaluations have supported the theory. Participation in a voucher program, for example, has boosted the college-going rates for African American students in New York City, and the children who participated in the voucher program in Washington, D.C., were more likely to graduate from high school. 5 In Dayton, Ohio, African American students who participated in the privately
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funded PACE scholarship program to attend a private school demonstrated higher reading achievement after two years. 6
II. The Report’s Findings, Conclusions, and Rationale
Although the Fordham report puts forth seven findings on the effects of vouchers in the five schools, the preliminary assertion regarding the beneficial impact of vouchers on student outcomes of interest in this review is drawn from an extremely narrow slice of the literature on school vouchers. The Fordham report selectively cites a report on college attendance rates in one program, one on graduation rates in another, and one on achievement gains (in only one subject) in a third. Perhaps to support this cherry -picking, two voucher advocates cite in the Foreword a single source: a survey of research by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 7 Thus, the whole report is supported by a total of three endnote references citing a grand sum of four sources.
III. The Report’s Use of Research Literature
The report’s scant use of sources should be seen in light of the fact that the Fordham Institute, and the Walton Family Foundation, which funded the report, both “enthusiastically” support vouchers (p. 1). The Fordham Institute, for example, “[strives] to develop policies and practices leading to a lively, accessible marketplace of high -quality education options for every young American (including charter schools, magnet schools, voucher programs, and online courses) as well as families empowered and informed so that they can successfully engage with that marketplace.” 8 Likewise, the aim of the Friedman Foundation, which provides the key sourc e of claims in the Foreword, is “to promote universal school choice as the most effective and equitable way to improve the quality of K-12 education in America .”9 While the present report’s overall goal is to examine the changes, if any, to the private schools accepting vouchers, the premise that vouchers are a positive force for students is asserted as a foregone conclusion, as the negligible effort to support the assertion suggests. Moreover, the use of these reports is both selective and sloppy. Either due to intent or inattention to the broader literature, Pluck and Tenacity is an excellent case study in cherry-picking evidence. 10 As noted, the Fordham report cites three reports on three different programs in support of its respective assertions that vouchers (1) improve college attendance rates, (2) improve high school graduation rates, and (3) cause gains in achievement. Yet what is not mentioned is that some of the citations the report uses to undergird one claim do not support, and in fact contradict, some of the other claims. For instance, the Executive Summary cites Wolf et al.’s (2010) evaluation of the voucher program in Washington, D.C., in support of the second assertion (that vouchers increase graduation rates) while ignoring the fact tha t Wolf and colleagues’ official http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-pluck-and-tenacity 2 of 9
evaluation of that program found that those same students did no better academically when compared with the control group: There is no conclusive evidence that the [DC voucher program] affected student achievement. On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships. 11 Yet this important finding is ignored in the report, as it contradicts its own third assertion: that vouchers improve achievement. Moreover, the Fordham report selects just two studies from what is actually a substantial literature on vouchers to support its assertions, ignoring the fact that the findings of the two studies selected have been called into question. For example, the Executive Summary cites Chingos and Peterson, who argued that “using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent.” 12 Yet it cherry-picks the findings, failing to note that the same report found no statistically significant voucher impact for Hispanic student college enrollment, and, indeed found “no overall impacts on college enrollments.” 13 Moreover, in a NEPC review of the study, Sara Goldrick-Rab critiqued their methods and claims, noting that the “strong focus on positive impacts for a single subgroup of students is not warranted” because, “there are no statistically significant differences in the estimated impact for African Americans as compared to other students.” 14 Overall, “the most precise estimate in this [Chingos & Peterson] report does not provide evidence that vouchers were effective in advancing the participation of students in higher education.” 15 Similarly, the only other reference Fordham makes is to an older report from West et al. (2001) to support the claim that vouchers lead to achievement gains for voucher students — the first-order effect. 16 Again, what is not mentioned is that the gains noted in the report cited by Fordham were evident only for one group of students in one subject area. Indeed, gains were more evident for reading, even though one of the report’s authors has acknowledged that mathematics is a better measure of the school effects, and is not as susceptible to the confounding effects of a student’s background factors. 17 What is especially odd, though, is that the Executive Summary choses to cite this one unpublished paper to support the assertion. Not only is there a much broader and more nuanced literature available on the first-order effects of vouchers, 18 but members of the team that wrote the paper the Fordham report cites have themselves written and published multiple papers on this issue, covering a number of programs in different citi es.19 Certainly, though, the findings on impacts of vouchers from that body of work depends on the city, subject area, grade level, and sub-group studied, and, again, those published papers have been challenged for their methodology and the advocacy efforts of the researchers. 20 A more comprehensive claim for vouchers comes in the Foreword for the report, in which Aaron Churchill and Chad Aldis cite a summary of selected studies by a voucher advocacy organization to support the contention that “The empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants . . . no empirical study has found http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-pluck-and-tenacity 3 of 9
a negative impact.” 21 This report, from Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation, repeats earlier, questionable claims. 22 However, especially since the claims are repeated every few years by the Friedman Foundation, 23 and then taken up uncritically in the echo chamber of voucher advocacy, a couple of points bear repeating. The studies cited tend to be conducted or funded by voucher advocacy groups, are typically not subjected to independent peer-review, and are often challenged on serious methodological grounds. 24 Furthermore, the claims made on behalf of these studies by the Friedman Foundation
In making claims about voucher studies, the report reflects a substantial lack of research expertise and does not adhere to general expectations for scholarly work, such as independent peer review.
often don’t reflect what the researchers actually found. For instance, despite being listed as finding positive effects for public schools facing competition, Carnoy , et al. (2007) describe results that are mixed and not decidedly positive. 25 That is, despite an initial bump in public school performance in some schools, “students in Milwaukee schools facing more competition from private voucher schools made no greater gains” (p. 3). It is important to note a serious methodological deficiency that plagues many of the studies used to support vouchers, including those in the Friedman survey and hence in the Fordham report. “Gold standard” studies typically rely on randomization to address selection bias issues. But this does not mean that any measurable difference between treatment (voucher) and control (non-voucher) groups are necessarily due to vouchers. Thus, voucher advocates often neglect the possibility that differences can be caused by other factors at a school, such as the peer effect — a possibility suggested by a General Accounting Office critique of these studies. 26 As was noted with reference to the famous Coleman Report: (T)he socioeconomic characteristics of a student’s peers also had a powerful effect on Coleman’s data. Ironically, these peer effects were weakest for the very advantaged groups whose parents might be most conscious of choosing the “right” s chools for their children. But for disadvantaged students, the socioeconomic background of other students at the school they attended was of considerable importance. 27 Yet many randomized studies of voucher impacts suffer from a failure to account for peer effects. That is, students who use vouchers are not simply placed in private schools, they are placed in a more fertile peer environment enriched by children whose parents are willing to shoulder costs (search costs, transportation, uniforms, tuition/fees ) to send their children to a private school. Thus, these studies typically do not tell us the extent to which a voucher (or type of school) accounts for any gains (if there are any) because they do not tell us the extent to which the enriched peer effect in the voucher school may account for any gains.28 Thus, as voucher advocates argue to focus less on student achievement and http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-pluck-and-tenacity 4 of 9
more on other academic behaviors — as reflected in the Fordham report —such as graduation and college attendance rates, research should be sensitive to the possibility that such outcomes are sensitive (and possibly more so) to the social mix of a given school.
IV. Review of the Report’s Methods
In making claims about voucher studies, the report reflects a substantial lack of research expertise and does not adhere to general expectations for scholarly work, such as independent peer review. Further, as the key source for the report’s Foreword, the Friedman Foundation website claims that “school choice [i]s the most effective and equitable way to improve the quality of K-12 education in America.” 29 Reflecting this ideological orientation, it is therefore not surprising that the paper shows marked prejudice in selecting and interpreting sources. Moreover, the glowing accounts of the five schools, which form the bulk of the report, reflect a blind advocacy for vouchers. Presenting generally celebratory case studies of these schools, the journalistic approach Belcher uses is not positioned to tell readers the extent to which vouchers are causing these schools to embrace effective practices. The dedicated, passionate educators profiled in the report exhibit admirable characteristics, but ones that are not exclusively the domain of voucher schools or even private schools. Examples of such dedication and zeal are apparent in many different types of schools. So the focus on these five amounts to little more than cheerleading for vouchers.
V. Review of the Validity of the Findings and Conclusions
While the purpose of the Fordham report was to examine how and if voucher-accepting private schools changed as a result of enrolling public school students, little attention is given to the underlying research on the academic effects of vouchers. As we have shown, the assertions that serve as the basic premise of the report are highly problematic and should be interpreted not as empirical findings, but as highly selective readings of the literature to support Fordham’s agenda with respect to vouchers.
VI. Usefulness of the Report for Guidance of Policy and Practice
While the report lacks research expertise, it does serve as yet another example of how cherry-picked evidence is too often used to support or reinforce the agendas of various advocacy organizations.
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Notes and References
1 Lubienski, C. (2012, June 28-29). First order effects of school choice programs: Research on academic achievement in vouchers programs . Invited presentation at the conference on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. See, for example: Peterson, P. E. (1999, January/February). Vouchers and test scores. Policy Review ; Peterson, P. E., Howell, W. G., & Greene, J. P. (1999). An evaluation of the Cleveland Voucher Program after two years. Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University; Witte, J. F. (1996). School choice and student performance. In H. F. Ladd (Ed.), Holding schools accountable: Performance-based reform in education (149-176). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. 2 Linick, M. (2012, June 28-29). Second order effects of school choice programs: Research on competition in vouchers programs. Invited presentation at the conference on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. See, for example: Carnoy, M., Adamson, F., Chudgar, A., Luschei, T. F., & Witte, J. F. (2007). Vouchers and public school performance: A case study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program . Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.epi.org/publication/book_vouchers/; Figlio, D. N., & Hart, C. (2009). Competitive effects of means-tested school vouchers . Paper presented at the paper presented at IGPA; Hess, F. M., & McGuinn, P. J. (2002). Muffled by the din: The competitive noneffects of the Cleveland voucher program. Teachers College Record, 104 (4), 727-764. 3 Belcher, E., Churchill, A., & Aldis, C. (2014). Pluck & tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio adapted to vouchers. Columbus, OH: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.edexcellence.net/publications/pluck-and-tenacity-how-five-private-schools-in-ohio-have-adaptedto-vouchers. See profiles in Education Next, retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://educationnext.org/how-private-schools-adapt-to-vouchers-youngtown-christian-school/; http://educationnext.org/how-private-schools-adapt-to-vouchers-immaculate-conception-school/. 4 The original version of the Fordham report and the original version of this review presented the Executive Summary as authored by Ellen Belcher. After publication, we were contacted by Aaron Churchill and Ellen Belcher, telling us that, contrary to what a normal reading of the document would suggest, it was Churchill and Chad Aldis who wrote the Executive Summary (as well as the Foreword), not Belcher. We each (Fordham and NEPC) agreed to correct the record. This revised review, therefore, makes changes throughout to remove the attribution to Belcher of the statements in the Executive Summary. 5 Citing Chingos, M. M. & Peterson, P. E. (2010). The effects of school vouchers on college enrollment . Washington, DC: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings;
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Wolf, P., et al., (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final report . Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences. 6 Citing West, M. R., Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2001). School choice in Dayton, Ohio after two years: An evaluation of the Parents Advancing Choice in Education Scholarship Program . Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University. 7 Citing Forster, G. (2013). A win-win solution: The empirical evidence on school choice , Third Edition. Indianapolis, IN: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 8 Thomas B. Fordham Institute (n.d.). Quality choices. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://edexcellence.net/policy-priorities/quality-choices (parentheses in original). 9 Friedman Foundation (n.d.). Mission and history. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.edchoice.org/About-Us/Mission---History. 10 On cherry-picking, see: Seife, C. (2010). Proofiness: The dark arts of mathematical deception . New York: Viking. 11 Wolf, P. et al., (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final report . Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, xv. 12 Chingos, M. M. & Peterson, P. E. (2010). The effects of school vouchers on college enrollment . Washington, DC: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings; Wolf, P., et al., (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final report . Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, ii. 13 Chingos, M. M. & Peterson, P. E, (2010). The effects of school vouchers on college enrollment . Washington, DC: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings; Wolf, P., et al., (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final report Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, ii. 14 Goldrick-Rab, S. (2012). Review of “The effects of school vouchers on college enrollment: Experimental evidence from New York City.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved February 13, 2014, from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-vouchers-college (see summary of review). 15 Goldrick-Rab, S. (2012). Review of “The effects of school vouchers on college enrollment: Experimental evidence from New York City.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 6. Retrieved February 13, 2014, from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-vouchers-college. 16 West, M. R., Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2001). School choice in Dayton, Ohio after two years: An evaluation of the Parents Advancing Choice in Education Scholarship Program . Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University. 17 Peterson, P. E. (1998). School choice: A report card. In P. E. Peterson & B. C. Hassel (Eds.), Learning from school choice 3-32. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 18 See, for example: Rouse, C. E. & Barrow, L. (2008). School vouchers and student achievement: Recent evidence, remaining questions. New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education;
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Usher, A. & Kober, N. (2011). Keeping informed about school vouchers: A review of major developments and research. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy. 19 See, for example: Howell, W. G. & Peterson, P. E. (2002). The education gap: Vouchers and urban schools . Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press; Howell, W. G., Wolf, P. J., Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2000). Test-score effects of school vouchers in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, and Washington, D.C.: Evidence from randomized field trials . Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/dnw00x.pdf; Mayer, D. P., Peterson, P. E., Myers, D. E., Tuttle, C. C., & Howell, W. G. (2002). School choice in New York City after three years: An evaluation of the school choice scholarships program . Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research Inc.; Myers, D. E., Peterson, P., Mayer, D., Chou, J., & Howell, W. G. (2000). School choice in New York City after two years: An evaluation of the school choice scholarships program . Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research Inc. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/PDFs/school2.pdf; Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). Charters, vouchers, and public education . Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 20 Krueger, A. B. & Zhu, P. (2004). Another look at the New York City school voucher experiment. American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (5), 658-698; Krueger, A. B. & Zhu, P. (2004). Inefficiency, subsample selection bias, and nonrobustness: A response to Paul E. Peterson and William G. Howell. American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (5), 718-728; Metcalf, K. K. (1998, September 23). Commentary - advocacy in the guise of science: How preliminary research on the Cleveland voucher program was ‘reanalyzed’ to fit a preconception. Education Week, 18, 34, 39; Witte, J. F. (1999, September). The Milwaukee voucher experiment: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 59-64; Witte, J. F. (1996). Reply to Greene, Peterson and Du: “The effectiveness of school choice in Milwaukee: A secondary analysis of data from the program’s evaluation.” Madison, WI: Department of Political Science and The Robert La Follette Institute of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison. 21 Citing Forster, G. (2013). A win-win solution: The empirical evidence on school choice , Third Edition. Indianapolis, IN: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 22 Lubienski, C. (2010). Review of “A win -win solution: The empirical evidence on how vouchers affect public schools.” In K. G. Welner, P. H. Hinchey, A. Molnar & D. Weitzman (Eds.), Think tank research quality: Lessons for policy makers, the media, and the public (5-22). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 23 See, for example: Forster, G. (2009). A win-win solution: The empirical evidence on how vouchers affect public schools. Indianapolis, IN: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 24 Lubienski, C., Weitzel, P., & Lubienski, S.T. (2009). Is there a “consensus” on school choice and achievement? Advocacy research and the emerging political economy of knowledge production. Educational Policy, 23 (1), 161193.
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25 Carnoy, M., Adamson, F., Chudgar, A., Luschei, T. F., & Witte, J. F. (2007). Vouchers and public school performance: A case study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program . Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.epi.org/publication/book_vouchers/. 26 General Accounting Office (2002). School vouchers: Characteristics of privately funded programs . Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02752.pdf. 27 Sacks, P. (2007). Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education . Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 15. 28 One notable exception to this is the Wolf et al. (2010) report, which acknowledged that a private school’s “climate” or “environment” can include both faculty and peer influences. However, in their program evaluation of the DC vouchers, Wolf et al. see this as part of the treatment a voucher provides to families, which is accurate within the framework of such a program. Nevertheless, it also raises questions about the generalizability of such findings if voucher programs were to be scaled up, as in Ohio, since there would be diminishing returns from the peer effects of vouchers. If more disadvantaged students enrolled in a school with privileged peers, the effect would be diluted. Wolf, P., et al., (2010). Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final report . Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences. 29 Friedman Foundation (n.d.). Mission and history. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.edchoice.org/About-Us/Mission---History.
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Pluck & Tenacity: How Five Private Schools in Ohio Have Adapted to Vouchers Ellen Belcher (main report) Aaron Churchill and Chad Aldis (foreword, executive summary) The Thomas B. Fordham Institute January 2014 March 6, 2014; updated March 19, 2014 Christopher Lubienski and T. Jameson Brewer, University of Illinois email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org (217) 333-4382
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Lubienski, C. & Brewer T.J. (2013). Review of “Pluck & Tenacity: How Five Private Schools in Ohio Have Adapted to Vouchers. ” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-pluck-and-tenacity.
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